A Lessen in Reading

If you are reading these words, chances are good that–in addition to possessing impeccable taste in weblogs–you both enjoy reading and regularly engage in this activity. Sadly, though, you may be a member of a growing minority, as the following news article from the Washington Post details:

A Troubling Case of Readers’ Block

Americans are reading less and their reading proficiency is declining at troubling rates, according to a report that the National Endowment for the Arts will issue today. The trend is particularly strong among older teens and young adults, and if it is not reversed, the NEA report suggests, it will have a profound negative effect on the nation’s economic and civic future.

“This is really alarming data,” said NEA Chairman Dana Gioia. “Luckily, we still have an opportunity to address it, but if we wait 10, 20 years, I think it may be too late.”

Titled “To Read or Not to Read,” the report is a significant expansion of the NEA’s widely cited 2004 study, “Reading at Risk.” The NEA based that earlier study exclusively on data from its own arts surveys, and as a result, that analysis focused mainly on so-called literary reading — novels, stories, plays and poems. This led some critics to downplay its implications.

The new report assembles much more data, drawing on large-scale studies done by other government agencies (such as the Department of Education) and by non-government organizations. These studies tend to use broader definitions of reading, said Sunil Iyengar, the NEA’s director of research and analysis, with many looking at “all kinds of reading,” a category that includes reading done online.

The story the numbers tell, Gioia said, can be summed up in about four sentences:

“We are doing a better job of teaching kids to read in elementary school. But once they enter adolescence, they fall victim to a general culture which does not encourage or reinforce reading. Because these people then read less, they read less well. Because they read less well, they do more poorly in school, in the job market and in civic life.” [full text]

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3 responses

  1. The crisis in reading has been a long time coming and will continue I think because the root causes are not addressed and there are simply no effective solutions. Somewhere I recall reading–and not recently either–that the entire non-textbook publishing industry, all the fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc., published each year is supported by about 5% of the population. In point of fact, I suspect that although the actual number of people who read as an option has stayed the same, that is people who read although they do not need to read but choose to, simply because there are more people in the country (300 million of us), the percentage who read has likely declined. The reason for the decline is likely the “secret” of the cause: there are too many other diversions that place a smaller premium on reading; most adults grew up in homes where books were rare or absent; and finally, society places no value on literacy.

    The electronic revolution of cable television and computers have made paper with print superfluous. This coupled with an educational system that places little or less value on basics (or encouraging the talented students) can only lead to a functionally illiterate public. Lastly, the cost of books has to be a disincentive to reading. The 50 cent paperbacl is long gone and now is a $6 paperback. Hardcover anything can be in the $25-$35 price range and given the choice of 10 gallons of gasoline or groceries, American disposable income will make the choices of necessity, and that does not include reading.

  2. I remember growing up that when the President took his vacations the press would always report on what he was reading. I haven’t heard that about G2 for a number of years. Never mind the anti-intellectualism that is implied in so much of the Ring-Wing commentary about “elitists from Ivy League schools” .

    Do something revolutionary…. read a book!

  3. I found the article to be very alarming, but as Donald said unfortunately it isn’t a new trend. Working with students, I have found that many lack not only the desire to read for pleasure, but the understanding of why anyone would want to do so!

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